Justin Sienkowski

Traffic vs. Engagement: Which should a publisher prefer?


Significant growth in mobile news consumption has many publishers scrambling to accommodate on-the-go news consumers, but the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2015” report suggests that desktop users might not be getting the attention they deserves.

While it is true that, according to the report, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites coming from mobile devices than desktop computers, the report also mentions that out of those top 50 sites, only ten have mobile visitors spend more time on the site than desktop users. Conversely, 25 of the top 50 sites have desktop users spend more time on the site than mobile users, with 15 having roughly the same time spent.

So while mobile traffic has been skyrocketing the past few years, desktop content seems to maintain its place as the best way to draw consumers attention for long periods of time. This disparity creates a worthwhile question: Are publishers better off creating content that is best suited for mobile in order to take advantage of the growing traffic numbers, or creating content better suited for desktop that promotes a high level of engagement and loyalty from consumers?

The answer likely lies somewhere in between, and largely depends on the goals of the website in question.

A publisher like The Wall Street Journal, which relies partially on subscriptions to produce revenue, is likely to focus on producing content that is more in-depth and can only be found on its site. But for the large swathes of news sites that are free to access by any user, it is a little more difficult.

One of the biggest factors to consider is the target audience of the publisher. Taking a look at some of the news sites provided in the report, some common trends emerge.

Among the sites that are top performers on mobile devices are digital native sites that cast a wide net in terms of the interests of the target audience, such as Gawker.com, Vice.com and Mashable.com, who had mobile visitors spend on average more time on the site than desktop visitors. These sites may not offer as detailed of information, but provide content that appeals to numerous target audiences within a subgroup, such as millennials, and are easily accessible and consumed through a mobile device, keeping consumers on site with a succession of shorter-length content pieces that might vary topic-wise.

While the majority of news sites recorded longer time on site with desktop users, a few sites stood out in regards to desktop usage. Of the nine digital native sites that had more desktop traffic than mobile traffic and longer time on site for desktop users, seven of them could be considered topical sites, with technology news sites the most prevalent. Taking into account that data, it makes sense that news sites that focus on a particular area of interest would promote prolonged usage and engagement from users who are passionate about the given subject.

By determining the target audience of its content, a publisher can decide what platform may be the better one to focus on. While, ideally, both mediums would be serviced the same, the audience a publisher attracts should have the final say in the content that is created and the way it is accessible. — Justin Sienkowski

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